Moral Briefs – Chapter LXXIV – Enmity

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonKilling is not the only thing forbidden by the Fifth Commandment: thereby are prescribed all forms of enmity, of which killing is one, that attack either directly or indirectly, in thought or desire, as well as in deed, the life, limbs or health of the neighbor. The fifth precept protects the physical man; everything therefore that partakes of the nature of a design on the body of another is an offense against this commandment. All such offenses are not equally grievous, but each contains a malice of its own, which is prescribed under the head of killing.

Enmity that takes the form of fighting, assault and battery, is clearly a breach of the law of God. It is lawful to wound, maim and otherwise disable an assailant, on the principle of self-defense, when there is no other means of protecting oneself against attack. But outside this contingency, such conduct is ruffianism before man, and sin before God. The State alone has the right to inflict penalties and avenge wrongs; to turn this right over to every individual would be destructive of society. If this sort of a thing is unlawful and criminal when there might be some kind of an excuse for it on the ground of injury received, the malice thereof is aggravated considerably by the fact of there being no excuse at all, or only imaginary ones.

There is another form of enmity or hatred that runs not to blows but to words. Herein is evil, not because of any bodily injury wrought, of which there is none, but because of the diabolical spirit that manifests itself, a spirit reproved by God and which, in given circumstances, is ready to resort to physical injury and even to the letting of blood. There can be no doubt that hatred in itself is forbidden by this commandment, for “whosoever hates his brother is a murderer,” according to Saint John. It matters little, therefore, whether such hatred be in deeds or in words; the malice is there and the sin is consummated. A person, too weak to do an enemy bodily harm, may often use his or her tongue to better effect than another could his fists, and the verbal outrage thus committed may be worse than a physical one.

It is not even necessary that the spirit of enmity show itself at all on the outside for the incurring of such guilt as attends the violation of this commandment. It is sufficient that it possess the soul, and go no farther than a desire to do harm. This is the spirit of revenge, and it is none the less sinful in the eyes of God because it lacks the complement of exterior acts. It is immoral to nourish a grudge against a fellow-man. Such a spirit only awaits an occasion to deal a blow, and, when that occasion shows itself, will be ready, willing and anxious to strike. The Lord refuses the gifts and offerings and prayers of such people as these; they are told to go and become reconciled with their brother and lay low the spirit that holds them; then, and only then, will their offerings be acceptable.

Even less than this suffices to constitute a breach of the Fifth Commandment. It is the quality of such passions as envy and jealousy to sometimes be content with the mere thought of injury done to their object, without* even going so far as to desire to work the evil themselves. These passions are often held in check for a time; but, in the event of misfortune befalling the hated rival, there follows a sense of complacency and satisfaction which, if entertained, has all the malice of mortal sin. If, on the contrary, the prosperity of another inspire us with a feeling of regret and sadness, which is deliberately countenanced and consented to, there can be no doubt as to the grievous malice of such a failing.

Finally recklessness may be the cause of our harming another. It is a sound principle of morals that one is responsible for his acts in the measure of his foreseeing, and consenting to, the results and consequences. But there is still another sound principle according to which every man is accountable, at least indirectly, for the evil consequences of his actions, even though they be unforeseen and involuntary, in the measure of the want of ordinary human prudence shown in his conduct. A man with a loaded revolver in his hand may not have any design on the lives of his neighbors; but if he blazes away right and left, and happens to fill this or that one with lead, he is guilty, if he is in his right mind; and a sin, a mortal sin, is still a sin, even if it is committed indirectly. Negligence is often culpable, and ignorance frequently a sin.

Naturally, just as the soul is superior to the body, so evil example, scandal, the killing of the soul of another is a crime of a far greater enormity than the working of injury unto the body. Scandal comes properly under the head of murder; but it is less blood than lust that furnishes it with working material. It will therefore be treated in its place and time.